By Ann Liguori
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Even though Tiger Woods will be missing the first Masters of his career, like it or not, it’s a good bet that “Tiger Talk” will still dominate at next week’s tournament.

Those gathering around the water cooler for some serious Masters talk will be discussing Tiger’s back woes and what it means for the future of the men’s game.

So we can’t say that for the first time in a long time, next week’s Masters will not be about Woods, because I’m sure conversation about his missing the Masters will still dominate discussions. It will be brought up in coverage, even as Tiger convalesces from a “successful microdiscectomy for a pinched nerve,” which “will require rest and rehab for the next several weeks.”

After all, it’s Tiger Woods we’re talking about, the player who has dominated the golf conversation since he turned professional. And bad back or not, Tiger is still the world’s No. 1 player, a four-time Masters champ and since 2006, finished tied for sixth or better five out of six times there. Last year, he finished T4. (In addition to his four wins in Augusta, Woods has two runners-up, 13 top-10 finishes and only one missed cut — as an amateur — in 19 starts.)

Before we look at some of the players who should take over the conversation next week, I’ve been asked if I’m surprised that Tiger pulled out of this year’s Masters. Frankly, I was not surprised. He’s been bothered by a bad back since last August. Spasms forced him to withdraw from The Honda Classic in the final round, and a week later, he complained about back pain in the final round of the World Golf Championships. He finished the round, but carded a 78, his highest score ever in a final round. He then announced he could not defend his title at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, withdrawing from the tournament he has won eight times.

The signs for a speedy recovery were not looking good.

And now questions intensify. Can his back be healthy for long periods of time and if so, how many more tournament wins are in Tiger’s future? And can Tiger win more Majors?

Tiger himself addressed the ever pressing question about catching Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles in a statement on his web site. It was the last paragraph in his statement, but by addressing it, you know the issue continues to weigh heavily on his mind.

“It’s tough right now, but I’m absolutely optimistic about the future,” Woods said. “There are a couple (of) records by two outstanding individuals and players that I hope one day to break. As I’ve said many times, Sam (Snead) and Jack (Nicklaus) reached their milestones over an entire career. I plan to have a lot of years left in mine.”

While Tiger remains optimistic about playing many more years, there are a variety of other players we should be talking about.

My pick to win this year’s Masters is either Jason Dufner or Jason Day. Dufner, the reigning PGA Champion, certainly has the shot-making skills to tame Augusta National and the demeanor to handle the pressure on Sunday should he play himself into contention.

Day, if his thumb injury doesn’t flare up again, could win. Day has been close the last couple of years. He was the 36-hole leader last year before finishing third. And in 2011, he tied for second. The 26-year-old is always in the hunt at Majors and this year, he certainly has the experience and confidence to close it out if he’s injury-free.

Defending champ Adam Scott should win more majors. After beating Angel Cabrera in a sudden-death play-off last year to win his first major, the 34-year-old Aussie knows he can win the big ones and has the game to do so.

And speaking of Cabrera, the 45-year-old still has what it takes to win at Augusta National.

Rory McIlroy, winner of two Majors, certainly has what it takes to be fitted for a Green Jacket. Hopefully that final round melt-down in 2011 when he blew a four shot lead, to shoot an 80, has disappeared in his memory bank. But then again, he shot a 79 last year and tends to be inconsistent there.

Is it Matt Kuchar’s time? Ever since he smiled his way around Augusta National as the U.S. Amateur Champion in 1997, finishing T21, I’ve had visions of him wearing the Green Jacket. It should happen. It’s just a matter of when.

And although questions remain about Phil Mickelson (he withdrew from the Valero Texas Open due to a pulled muscle), the three-time Masters champ is always a favorite at Augusta National. Regardless of his ailments, no one can regain the magic at Augusta National better than Phil Mickelson. When he gets on a birdie run there, the sky’s the limit.

Dustin Johnson, Brandt Snedeker, Henrik Stenson and 2011 Masters champ Charl Swartzel can all easily be in the mix as well.

Though Tiger is out of the Masters, the good news is that the men’s field is deep enough that a whole bunch of players have what it takes to win it.

They have the ability to make the Masters as exciting as ever and take over the conversation.

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